Help, I'm Addicted to Sugar
“I’m addicted to sugar.”
“I can’t control myself around sugars and carbs.”
Those are just some of the comments I frequently hear from clients and audience members when I speak. What about YOU? Have you ever felt the attraction of sugars and/or carbs?
Can We Really be Addicted to Sugars or Carbs?
No, at least not like a true addiction with drugs or alcohol, but I can see why people use that word. I know what it feels like when sugars and carbs seem to control your life – because I once felt that I was addicted to carbs, too.
Should I Give Up Sugar Completely?
No, I don’t think that’s the solution.
Because I’m guessing you’ve already tried that approach. And, did it work? Enough said.
Isn’t Sugar Bad?
While, our body has no nutritional need for table sugar, brown sugar, maple syrup, agave syrup, and the like, “sugar” is not evil. Even healthful carbs eventually turn into “sugar” (or glucose) in the body. And, that’s not a bad thing.
The brain, weighing in at two percent of the body’s weight, uses about 25% of all the calories we burn in a day…in the form of glucose. The red blood cells require glucose as its fuel, too.
In fact, glucose is so critical to the human body, that if you eat NO carbs, the body will break down some of the protein you eat – and turn it into glucose anyway. The body NEEDS glucose.
Sugar Liking is Normal
It’s not surprising that you like sugar. Babies (and even fetuses in the womb) show a natural liking for sweet. They suck harder when the solution is sweet.
Did you know that breast milk has more (natural) “sugar” than cow’s milk? And, of course, breast milk is great for a growing baby.
So, What’s Causing the Cravings?
Two things. One is physiological – having to do with the body. The other is psychological – or is programmed in the brain. Let’s talk about the first.
1. Blame It on Insulin
When you eat sugar (or any type of carb), most of that is broken down by our digestive system into tiny molecules of glucose which get absorbed into your blood stream.
Your pancreas produces a hormone, insulin, to help carry the glucose into the body’s cells. The cells use glucose for fuel to stay alive. The more carbs we eat, the more insulin we need to produce. This is all completely normal.
Sometimes, especially as we get older…and, especially when we get heavier…our pancreas just can’t respond with adequate amounts of insulin fast enough. That’s called “insulin resistance.”
And, when the pancreas finally does…it produces too much insulin. That takes too much glucose out of the blood stream leaving us with low blood glucose (aka low blood sugar) and that’s when the cravings for more sugar or carbs start.
What Can I Do?
- Don’t throw out ALL carbs. Sugar has no nutritional value so you’re missing nothing if you give them up. (But like I said earlier, you don’t have to). Just don’t get rid of all the carbs. There are many healthier carbs that are chock full of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants to keep us healthy. Think beans, broccoli, lentils, soybeans, oats, carrots, and quinoa. Have you ever overeaten them? Do you feel like any of these foods are “addictive?” Lol. Probably not.
- Don’t eat too many carbs at one time. Carbs aren’t the “bad guys”. It’s just that when we eat too many at one time, our blood glucose drops and we tend to get a craving later. That’s why, if you’re going to eat sugar, it’s much better to eat a small amount of sugar daily, rather than a huge dessert once a week.
- Limit your sugars. Most nutrition guidelines recommend getting no more than 10% of your calories in the form of sugar. That includes table sugar, maple sugar, agave, and all the other kinds of sugar. I find it easiest to think about 10% of your total calories. So, if you’re eating 1500 or 2000 calories a day, 10% is 150 or 200 calories of something sweet every day. For me, a bit of it's dark chocolate every day.
- Stop sucking sugar. There’s a lot of simple sugar found in soda, fruit juice, sweetened coffee beverages, and most “smoothies.” Probably more than that 150-200 calories I just mentioned. Plus, when all you do is drink sweet stuff all day, your body will continue to crave the sweet stuff. Instead of craving apples, you want apple pie. But, don’t switch to sucking sugar free sodas and waters all day either. Get used to the taste of water to reduce your sugar cravings.
- Add protein. Proteins (chicken, beef, tuna, Greek yogurt, etc.) fill you up (so potentially you’ll eat less sugar) AND they help to slow down the absorption of glucose. How fast or slow the blood glucose rises after eating carbohydrates is called the Glycemic Index. Here are a couple of videos: Part One and Part Two.
- Add fiber. Fiber (think veggies and salad) also slows down the absorption of glucose so enjoy your carbs with plenty of veggies, too.
So, that's a bit about the physiological response when we eat sugar.
But, I'm guessing that most of what we refer to as "sugar addiction" is more of the psychological nature. Next let's talk about how the brain keeps our connection (and cravings) for sugar and carbs so strong – and how to break that bond.
2. Habits Promoting Sugar Consumption
Have you ever headed home from work in your car, pulled into the driveway, and then realized that you don’t remember any of the trip? It’s like you drove on auto-pilot (even though your car isn’t one of those self-driving cars)?
That’s not the only thing you do on auto-pilot. As I was typing this article, I tried to recall where certain letters on the keyboard are located (without looking)…and other than QWERTY, I had no idea. And, yet, I'm somehow able to type pretty darn fast. Chances are, you type on auto-pilot, too. And get ready in the morning and prepare breakfast in the same way.
Doing things on auto-pilot is what happens to many of us over time – in many areas of our lives. And, thank goodness. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to think about every single little motion or action?
We create habits (both healthy and not-so-healthy) habits in the same way…by doing the same things over and over again until they become second nature. And, that’s why it’s so hard to break them.
A Spider Web of Connections
Our habits (or “addictions” as some people chose to call them) around sugar, are especially hard because they’re not created just from just one event. They are often hard-wired to many different things.
While many people visualize habits as a chain link…to me, it’s more like an intricate spider web in which habits are connected from a lot of different directions.
Think back to your childhood. Can you recall any events in which sugar, sweets, baked goods, and carbs were central to the event? Perhaps you’re thinking birthdays, Christmas, Hanukkah, Easter, Passover, Halloween.
But, those carbs are not just connect through the holiday itself. Our desire is also connected through specific people, places, time of year, smells, sounds, memories, and emotions.
Sugar on a Pedestal
What makes our attraction to sugars and carbs even more difficult is that as kids many of us were rewarded with them. And, who doesn’t like a prize? Were you ever told (and told others):
“If you eat all your veggies (or dinner or whatever), you can have dessert”
“You did great! Let’s celebrate with ice cream.”
“Oh, poor baby, did you hurt yourself? Have a cookie.
At first glance comments like these sound innocuous. But, what they end up doing is putting desserts and sweets on a pedestal as being better and tastier than other kinds of foods. They are often used to soothe our pain. Alcohol addictions can start the same way.
What to Do: Breaking the Sugar Connection
Next time you have a craving for sugar, sweets, and carbs, consider these:
1.Be mindful of what’s going on
When the cravings come, ask yourself what’s attracting you to the sugar or carbs? Is it because of a physiological aspect (as we discussed in the previous article) like not eating enough during the day? Is it a habit that goes back to childhood? Does your dinner feel incomplete without dessert? Are you trying to meet an emotional need (for example, are you bored, mad, or sad)?
2. Give yourself permission
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying sweets and carbs…in moderation, of course. Part of the pull of sugar comes from making it “forbidden” or labeling these foods as “bad” or even “junk food.”
Sure, sugar is not as healthy as having a fresh vegetable salad, but a small amount every so often isn’t going to kill you – and it might even make life a bit more fun.
3. Eat your “pleasers”, skip your “teasers”
While you may claim to love all foods…or that you’re addicted to anything that’s made with sugar, I want you to narrow down those foods into “pleasers” (the ones you would select first, if they were all on the menu) and the “teasers” (those foods you eat just because they’re around). Dark chocolate is my pleaser. And, I give myself permission to eat a small amount every day. It keeps me from indulging in the “death by chocolate” 1000 calorie dessert…and then feeling sick afterwards.
4. Break and replace
Our sugar-eating habits are interconnected with so many other variables, like a chain link or a spider’s web. Instead of simply trying NOT to eat sugar or sweets when you have the craving (that’s difficult), brainstorm about how to replace the sugar with something that will help with its original goal.
For example, if dessert marks the end of a meal, could you replace it with a smaller serving of your favorite? Or could you use a cup of hot tea or a mint as your signal to close your meal? Or brush your teeth?
If your sugar craving is coming from an unfulfilled emotional need, could you replace it with a walk outside? Or punch your pillow? Or take a bubble bath or read a good book?
I’d love to hear about your sugar or carb craving. Send an email to drjo at drjo.com.
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